A Funny Thing Happened: Comedy at Jewish Film Festival

Circumcise Me is one of the funniest films shown in Milwaukee cinemas this year

By David Luhrssen

23 October 2008

"You're a little nervous about the gasmask, right?" asks Yisrael Campbell. With the mask draped over the shoulder of his black suit coat, the fiercely bearded comic in the Hasidic hat pauses for a sly moment to let the crowd at a Jerusalem comedy club respond with laughter. "You think you missed the nine o'clock news?"

Transforming anxiety into laughter has been the special gift of Jewish culture to America and the world, especially through the influence of Hollywood comedy from the Marx brothers through the Coen brothers. What's remarkable abut Campbell is that he grew up Irish Catholic in Philadelphia and converted to Judaism-not once but three times, moving steadily toward the roots from Reform through Conservative congregations before finally turning Orthodox and fulfilling the logic of his spiritual journey by moving to Israel.

The documentary on Campbell as a comic and seeker, Circumcise Me, is one of the funniest films shown in Milwaukee cinemas this year. It's a standout attraction at the 11th Annual Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival, held Oct. 26-Oct. 30 at the Marcus North Shore Cinema. Circumcise MeDans La Vie (Two Ladies) will be screened 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 28. and

Directors Matthew Kalman and David Blumenfeld show some fast moving snapshots of Campbell's adopted city, Jerusalem, a place where the ancient and the modern, the spiritual and the profane, coexist in uneasy and discordant harmony. Jerusalem is the spiritual home of the three major monotheisms as well as the physical home of Jews and Arabs. Some of that tension plays out in Campbell's comedy sketches, which form the bulk of the movie.

Campbell is not a one-joke comedian, however. Some of his humor is universal. Campbell's affable mockery of GAP clothing for infants-the label declares the line suitable for children weighing 0-5 pounds-points to corporate absurdity the world over. Why the 0? What, some marketing director thinks parents of children weighing absolutely nothing are a target market?

In many of the sketches captured in Circumcise Me, Campbell makes himself the bull's-eye of his own congenial if sharply articulated humor. In his youth he was a common type who took the less common path. Disenchanted with Roman Catholicism from a young age, he decided he was spiritual, not religious, because he didn't like being told what to do or think. He had some drug problems, became infatuated with a Jewish girl and thought he might as well take Reform Judaism for a spin, fully expecting to like it as little as any other organized religion.

As it turned out, he liked it so much that he couldn't be satisfied with the Reform movement, which discards those parts of Jewish tradition that fit least comfortably into contemporary society. Campbell kept digging for the roots and asking himself what kind of Jew he wanted to be. "Is it warm in here or am I the only one dressed for Poland in the 1700s?" he asks, breaking the ice with laughter for a casual young crowd at a Jerusalem club.

By the time he moved to Israel, the Palestinian Intifada was getting under way. Rioting rocked Jerusalem. Bombs exploded in the night. Campbell even incorporates a joke about an infamous Hamas "master bomb maker" into his act-a man with only one leg and one arm. Given the loss of those limbs, "I'd say he was only a mildly proficient bomb maker," Campbell quips.

But the comedian isn't laughing about the ugly "Separation Fence" erected to segregate Arabs from Jews. Violence has subsided since the wall went up, yet Campbell insists from experience that Arabs and Jews are brothers, great friends one on one but have become enemies in mass. Given the shrill political rhetoric from both sides, he is pessimistic about the prospects for peace.